Saturday, October 3, 2015
I am sorry to hear that Brian Friel died Friday in Donegal at age 86. The obits in both Los Angeles Times and The New York Times called him "The Irish Chekhov," but neither obit mentions his short stories.
The author of thirty-one stories in two collections, The Saucer of Larks (1962) and The Gold in the Sea (1966), eighteen of which were selected and republished in The Saucer of Larks: Stories of Ireland (1969), Friel once made a distinction between the relationship between the storyteller he began as and the playwright that he became. Whereas the playwright must always be concerned with using stealth to evoke a fresh response from the complacent theater audience, the storyteller mimics a personal conversation implicitly prefaced with, "Come here till I whisper in your ear."
However, there is perhaps more similarity between Friel's stories and his plays than there are differences. First of all, his stories are conventionally organized, built on the substructure of a relatively straightforward thematic idea that can be illustrated by moving relatively simple characters about on a limited stage. Although Friel has been compared to Chekhov and Turgenev, whereas there is a surface similarity, he lacks the character complexity of Chekhov and Turgenev's lyricism. Here are some thumbnail remarks on some of his best-known stories:
"Among the Ruins"
A typical Friel story, "Among The Ruins" is structured conventionally around the main character's discovery about the irretrievable nature of the past. Margo, Joe's wife, arranges, for the children's sake, for a family day-trip to Donegal where Joe was born and raised. Although at first he resists the idea, saying he is not sentimental and that he does not see the point in the trip, on the way he becomes excited, not because he wants to show his children where he played as a boy, but because he wants to recapture some lost magic.
However, when he tries to explain to his wife the significance of the imaginative games he once played in a secret bower with his sister, he realizes that the past is an illusion, a mirage that allows an escape from the present. When he finds his son playing his own imaginative game in the woods, he understands that ironically the past belongs not to him, but to his son, in a long line of generations, all finding some meaning in their magic of unrecapturable childhood. Thematically, the story suggests that the past has meaning not as something that once happened, but as something that continues to happen, repeating itself over and over again.
The Irish stereotypes of the alcoholic husband and the shamed and embarrassed wife form the basis of "The Diviner." The twist that Friel plays on the story is that Nelly Devenny, the shamed wife, is freed from her alcoholic husband in the first paragraph of the story and, after a suitable period of mourning, decides to marry again, this time to a respectable retired man from the West of Ireland. The story actually begins when, three months after Nelly marries the man, he is drowned in a lake. After frogmen fail to find the body, a diviner is brought in, who, like a priest, can smell out the truth. And the truth, which Friel saves until the end of the story is revealed when the body is brought to the surface and two whisky bottles are found in his pocket. Nelly's wailing that ends the story is not so much for the dead husband as it is for the respectability she had almost gained but which now is lost once again.
"Foundry House" is Friel's best-known and most widely respected story, primarily because it features a cast of well-balanced characters in a dramatic scene that presages Friel's later triumphs in stage drama. The story is also appealing to many readers because the dramatic oppositions in the story derive from Irish history and reflect a clearly defined class distinction that once was known as the "Big House" system, in which English Protestants lived in the large manor homes with Irish Catholic peasants dependant on them. However, because Friel is not really interested in these political or religious distinctions, he makes both Joe Brennan, the working class descendant of the peasant class, and the Hogan family, who still live in the big house, Irish Catholic.
Friel symbolizes the difference between the dying old way and the competent new industrial world by making the Hogans aging and sterile and Joe a radio-television repairman. When Joe is called to the house to show the family how to play a tape recording from one of the daughters, a nun in Africa, he is asked to stay and listen, but the father, now infirm, snaps at him, calling him "boy," as in the old days. However, when Joe returns home and is queried by his curious wife about the big house, he can only say, as he dresses his baby for bed, that they are a great, grand family.
"The Saucer of Larks"
The magic of the natural world and its momentary superiority over the public world of rules and protocol dominates "The Saucer of Larks." The protagonist is a police Sergeant in Donegal who escorts two German officials to disinter the body of a young German soldier who has crashed in the area during World War II. The landscape has a significant effect on the Sergeant, making him feel that he would not mind being buried out here, for with so much life around you, you don't have a chance to be really dead. When they reach the grave site, they hear hundreds of larks singing, which inspires the Sergeant further in his lyrical response to nature. Arguing that when you are buried in one of the big cemeteries in Dublin, you're finished and complaining about how man destroys such beautiful areas as the place known as the saucer of larks, he tries to convince the Germans to leave the young pilot where he is; but the Germans, in stereotyped fashion, can think only of orders and duty. At the end of the story, when the Sergeant is back at the station, he wonders what came over him out there, puzzling that he had never done anything like that ever before, blaming it on the heat and his age.
"My Father and the Sergeant"
The title of this Friel story sufficiently signifies its meaning, for the Father and the Sergeant are one and the same; the story is told by a young man whose father, a teacher at the school in Donegal where he attends, is secretly nicknamed the Sergeant by his students; thus he is both a kind, silent man troubled by ambition and a stern, hard-driving, humorless task-master. The story is not so much dependent on theme or complexity of character as it is on a reminiscent tone of gentle sad memory. When passed over for a better post, the father decides he will show his superiors what a good teacher he is by preparing four of his students for the regional scholarship exams. However, when he is stricken by pleurisy and a substitute must be called in, the young man becomes so popular with his charges that the father's position is made even more fragile. The story comes to a climax when the new teacher is accused of kissing one of the young girls, the protagonist's girlfriend, and is sent packing by the priest. When the father returns and some of the boys tease the young girl, saying that she will be wrestling on the couch with the Sergeant next, the protagonist knocks him down, crying "He's my father." However, rather than tell his father what the boys have said, the protagonist says only that he hit the boy because he called him the Sergeant.
Friel has been criticized by some critics for writing stories that, although they often are situated on the politically charged boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Friel acts pretty much as if the boundary and the bloody history that stains it did not exist. The conflicts that beset his characters are not political but personal; and the past that Friel evokes is romantic rather than rebellious. Although such slighting of political rhetoric by Friel in favor of universal longings and romantic illusion may irritate social critics who want fiction to carry political freight, Friel's short fiction is firmly within the Irish tradition of universal folk.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Compiling a "Best of" collection is a risky business. I have never been asked to do such a thing, but can guess what pressures the compiler must consider. There is the problem of "making a book," which usually necessitates some variety as to subject matter and style—not all experimental, not all conventional realism. Then there is the issue of a mixed representation of authors—not all well-knowns, not all unknowns.
Foremost, of course, there is the issue of subjectivity. Everyone has his or her own particular preferences about favorite kinds of stories, favorite styles, approaches, etc. I have read all five volumes of The Best British Short Stories and have enjoyed the experience. I admire and respect Nicholas Royle's editorial expertise and appreciate his efforts to stimulate interest in the short story among British writers and readers.
However, as my last post indicates, I do not always have the same opinion of some of the stories in the 2011 collection as he perhaps does. Of course, although I have read thousands of stories in my career, I have not read the hundreds of stories he read from which he chose the twenty in the collection. So I cannot question his judgment that he has chosen the twenty best stories published in England in 2010.
The best I can do in this final post on the 2011 edition of The Best British Short Stories is to come clean about my own personal preferences about some of the stories—those that I liked and those that I did not particularly like—and try to explain why.
Lee Rourke's "Emergency Exit" is a second-person point of view story that places the narrator in a no-exit situation seeing himself as if he were outside himself, feeling unsettled and not caring what he is doing. His detachment from reality is suggested by his noting that the Emergency Exit sign is in Helvitica or maybe Microsoft Sans Serif. He feels empty, as if he does not exist, as if nothing exists. A man's eyes are like "two dark pools of nothingness." "Finally, you feel nothing." Everything is without consequence or meaning. "I don't know where I'm going," he says. The story reads a bit like a classroom exercise in which the professor has asked students to write a story about meaninglessness. It raises the old conundrum of whether one can write about meaninglessness with the story becoming meaningless.
"Foreigner," which springs from the Falklands War, is a relatively transparent story about the horrors of war and thus lends itself to generalized polemic. Inevitably, in such a story, the central character recalls killing an enemy soldier and cannot get it out of his mind. Also inevitably, men talk about wars being about freedom, while mothers say their son did not die for freedom . "There was nothing noble about the way he was sacrificed," a mother says, putting polemical statements in the mouths of characters. And as the central character recalls killing an enemy soldier, he has a taste in his mouth like a "rotting tooth." Such a story makes set pieces and clichés seem inevitable as the woman says about her lost son, "Our marriage is past. Even Alex is in the past now. And we've got to live in the present." Getting tangled in such generalities then leads to more clichés, and bad metaphors like "the word cracked like ice beneath too heavy a weight." The story illustrates an important truth—that just because the story deals with an important subject does not make it an important story. War stories are often guilty of this, for war is such a huge and important subject. But it does not make for an important story unless the language controls it, as it does, for example in American writer Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
Sometimes stories just want to be clever and smart and satiric. In Adam Marek's "Dinner of the Dead Alumni." England's Trinity College at Cambridge is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its most famous alumnus, Isaac Newton, and the 100th anniversary of Ludwig Wittgenstein's attendance at the college. This gives Marek the opportunity to make use of some research and evoke ghosts of AA Milne, Jawaharlal Nehru, Aleister Crowley, John Dryden, and Francis Bacon. This context backgrounds a story about the narrator recalling an old girlfriend telling him that for every person there is a partner so perfect that if you touch that person you'll both have an immediate simultaneous orgasm. Although this seems like a most inconvenient gift, he yearns for it, for "an orgasm that one did not have to work for, that came unsolicited at some unsuspecting moment, would surely be the most wondrous of all." The story exists for the two concepts. It is clever, but is that enough to create a good story?.
Sometimes stories just want to play around with writing conventions. Philip Langeskov's "Notes on a Love Story1" is a very brief story about a man who has just got his first short story published in in Paris Review; when he shares this news with his girlfriend they see a huge flock of geese. It is the eleven academic style endnotes that make up the real story. Some just supply information, e.g. who is George Plimpton and William Maxwell? But most of them provide personal information about the narrator/author and his relationship with his girlfriend. It strikes me as a gimmick that does not seem essential other than to suggest that the narrator is first and foremost a writer.
The fact that I like SJ Butler's "The Swimmer" probably gives me away as a reader who prefers stories driven by an emotion, a mysterious obsession and written in a lyrical fashion without lots of explanation or ideology or sociology. The story is about a woman who decides to go swimming in the river that she can see from her study. I like the prose that creates her situation:
"Down here at water level, she realises, not only is she invisible to the rest of the world, but it is invisible to her. The tops of the banks are at least ten feet above her so all she can see is the river, the banks and the sky. Her focus narrowed, she begins to notice tiny details; here where the river is kinked around a root, there are weeds with narrow dark green leaves. In places the banksides have been scraped back to bare earth by the spring floods , and high up there are clusters of miniature animal holes"
During her swim, she sees a swan: "She had never before realised the sheer size of a swan. Down here, on its level, she is insignificant." The woman begins to spend more and more time in the river, becoming more and more obsessed with the swan. Many days later, she swims nearer to the swan and sees it is trapped in a nylon fishing line. She swims round and round the swan unraveling the thread, until she frees the bird and it drifts away from her in the current. She lets the current take her too and catches a faint glimpse of the swan a white puff in the distance. "And at the next bend she cannot tell it from the mist rising from the water."
Call me a romantic and be damned. But I like this lyrical obsessive connection between the woman and the water and the swan. I don't know anything more about the woman, nor do I need to to participate in her magical and mysterious union with a rhythm and reality of the natural/ world.
I also like Heather Leach's "So Much Time in a Life," mainly because its fairy-tale language lures me in: "To begin with there were three children. The first, a girl with hair so dark and wet that, as she came out of me, it looked like a seal pelt: the sleek fur of a creature slipping from its underwater world onto the soft rock of my breast." The story plays a bit with point of view: "When is the moment when she becomes I? Is this it? They say that most people hate it, the author stepping into her story, spoiling the fictional dream. I hate it too, but here she is, here I am, breaking, breaking, breaking the frame." The story is, like a few others in the collection, about the writing process, but here, rather than being just a gimmick, it seems right for a story that is about the relationship between reality and the life of the imagination, a story about a woman creating her children and losing them, about a woman's netherworld of what is real and what is imagined.
Alan Beard, "Staff Development." Just too much meaningless language and meaningless sex.
Kirsty Logan, "The Rental Heart" A clever trope derived from a futuristic technology of being about to rent a heart, but the story exists only for the extended metaphor.
I liked Bernie McGill's "No Angel, "from the first sentence: "The first time I saw my father after he died, I was in the shower, hair plastered with conditioner , when the water stuttered and turned cold." I liked the rest of the story because of the restrained way it deals with death in Northern Ireland. But, sometimes I like a story because it strikes a personal note. I liked this story because my mother-in-law, a wonderful woman who came to America from Belfast after WWII to marry an American soldier she met at a dance, had just died at age 90 when I read it. She was a wonderful woman who my wife and I cared for the last few years. Purely personal reason, but unavoidable.
John Burnside, "Slut's Hair" is another favorite for me because of my empathy with a woman who is married to a brutish husband who insists on pulling out one of her bad teeth with a pair of pliers. The woman feels helpless against the man, so she creates something to save from him, since she cannot save herself—an imaginary mouse she constructs out of a fistful of dust that her mother called "slut's hair."
Sometimes I read a story that I like, but am unable to say why, for example, Alison Moore's "When the Door Closed, It Was Dark" about a young British au pair girl who is hired by a family in a foreign country. There is a baby in the family she is to help care for, but the mother is mysteriously not there. The atmosphere is oppressive, even threatening, and the story is loaded with premonitions about something happening to the baby, but even though I feel the story is too self-consciously wired, there is something about the vulnerability of the young woman that arouses my sympathy, and then the expected unexpectedly happens at the end. Hard to resist.
I don't care for stories that feel they have to explain everything. Sally Vickers's "Epiphany," for example, "He had mourned his absent father, fiercely, inconsolably, endlessly, desperately." "The note of whimsy was terrible." "Charlie…felt a further rush of absolving relief." "He felt nothing. Not even contempt." "He could never have envisaged this hesitant man with the unsettle squeak and tremor in his voice. Sharply, fervently, he wished this newly recovered parent to the bottom of the sea." Just too much explanation of feelings.
I am going to try to talk about other volumes in the Best British Short Stories series in future blogs, but I will probably only focus on those that are my favorites. My mother always said, "If you can't say something nice about some thing, don't say anything at all." That isn't easy, Mom, but I will try.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
It seems tautological, not to mention obvious, to say, but the basic reason the short story is not a popular form nowadays is that most people don't like stories that are short, but rather stories that are long. There have been times in the past when short stories were widely read—in England during the 1890s and in America in the 1920s—but today? not so much, although there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in England recently.
Some of this drop in popularity has to do with media, for short stories used to be widely read when periodical magazines were the main means of print distribution.
Short fiction films, defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an original motion picture with a running time of 40 minutes or less, have never had a wide distribution in theaters. They are usually made by independent film makers for nonprofit, with a low budget, usually funded by grants.
In the so-called "Golden Age of Television" in the 1950, anthology shows, such as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were very popular. Now folks watch scripted series shows on television with different stories each week, but with the same main characters, often engaged in a continuing back story about their lives. For example, the popular American series How to Get Away with Murder features a tough professor/lawyer with a small group of smart student followers in which, behind separate cases each week, there runs a continuous story of the murder of the lawyer's husband by the students.
The growing trend to watch a number of episodes of a series on Netflix or Amazon featuring the same characters in what has been called binge viewing is just one more indication that folks like long continuous stories rather than short individual ones.
Writers who write short stories in the hopes that they will find readers thus always face the problem of distribution. It usually goes this way. A writer submits a story to various small journals, usually sponsored by universities or nonprofits, and if he or she can publish at least a dozen stories this way, an agent or publisher might be willing to publish them in a collection of stories, that is if the author looks promising and promises a novel next time. It helps if some of the stories are picked up by one of the "Best" anthologies. The collection will probably sell better if the author strings the stories together around the same characters and the publisher can promote the book a novel in stories.
It is next to impossible to make a living this way, which usually means that writers have to teach in the growing number of MFA programs in England and American. Sometimes it seems as if there are more writers of short stories than there are readers. Or, put another way, it seems that aspiring short story writers are the primary audience for published short stories.
The Internet has made possible some new technological means by which authors can get stories in print and in front of an audience—on special websites devoted to story publication and on blogs. However, Nicholas Royle has taken an old-fashioned 16th century approach to getting short stories out there. He started Nightjar Press and began publishing short stories as chapbooks in limited, numbered editions, autographed by the authors. At my last count, there are twenty titles in the series. Mr. Royle was kind enough to send me the following five for my reading pleasure.
Christopher Kenworthy, "sullom hill"
Tom Fletcher, "The Home"
Elizabeth Stout, "Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers"
Joel Lane, "black country" (now out of print)
Alison Moore, "The Harvestman"
I have read all five of the books (stories), enjoying them all. And "enjoy" is the keyword here. My impression of the stories is that they were chosen to be read once with some pleasure, not to be studied and savored through rereadings. They strike me as that hybrid form combining characteristics of the popular plot-based story with some characteristics of the language-based literary story. Sometimes the weight is more toward literary, as in Alison Moore's "The Harvestman," and sometimes more toward the popular, as with Elizabeth Stout's "Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers." Sometimes the weight shifts toward genre story, albeit with literary characteristics, as with the traditional hard-bitten detective story of Joel Lane's "black country," and sometimes a bit more toward the experimental as with Tom Fletcher's "The Home" or the literary with Christopher Kenworthy's "sullom hill."
Because these stories are a pleasure to read for their plot, it would spoil your pleasure if I were to give those plots away. Suffice to say, I liked reading these stories and I give Mr. Royle great credit for promoting interest in the short story by making them available. I assume that if all but seven of the twenty titles in the series are out of print, he must have succeeded in his plans and made enough money to defray publication costs. It is nice to have a single thin volume with a nice cover and an author autograph inside.
A July Facebook post indicates that three other titles are still in print: "Puck" by David Rose, "The Jungle," by Conrad Williams, and "M" by Hilary Scudder.
You can email firstname.lastname@example.org to place an order for any of the seven titles that may still be in print. Thanks to Nicholas Royle, a true champion of the short story in England, for sharing these chapbooks with me.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Last year at the Independent Bath Literature festival, Hanif Kureishi raised a bit of musty dust by declaring that creative writing courses were a waste of time. Whether anyone can teach another to be a "creative writer" is an old fuss and doesn't interest me. The answer is, of course, both "yes" and "no."
What most caught my eye in the report of Kureishi's rant was his claim that students don't understand that it's the story that really counts. "They worry about the writing and the prose and you think: 'Fuck the prose, no one's going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'"
Maybe Kureishi is right about many novels that, eager to make money and get on to what happens next, consist of piss-poor prose—but certainly not a real short story—at least a short story that aims to be more than a mere time-passer on the bus or on the pot.
I agree with George Saunders, a much better short-story writer than Kureishi, who says that the litmus test for him is always the language. In his essay, “Thank You, Esther Forbes," Saunders says a sentence is more than just a fact-conveyor; it also makes a certain sound, and could have a thrilling quality of being over-full, saying more than its length should permit it to say. A sequence of such sentences exploding in the brain makes the invented world almost unbearably real. Saunders says, and I agree, by honing the sentences you use to describe the world, you change the inflection of your mind, which changes your perceptions.
To claim that all readers that want to do is to find out what happens next shows a lack of respect for the reader. I want to comment briefly today on a few stories in the 2011 Best British Short Stories that raise Kureishi's "fuck the prose" condescension.
If you don't think precision of language and a perfectly controlled and coherent tone is important in a story; if you think plot is important or realism or raw emotion is important, read Leone Ross's "Love Silk Food" and consider how language is the key to a great story. Here is her opening sentence:
"Mrs. Neecy Brown's husband is falling in love. She can tell because the love is stuck to the walls of the house, making the wallpaper sticky, and it seeps into the calendar in her kitchen, so bad that she can't see what the date is and the love keeps ruining the food: whatever she does or however hard she concentrates, everything turns to mush."
Outrageous metaphors work if, when you really think about them, they have an irresistible logic. The problem this story raises and solves is how to create the emotions of a woman whose husband is cheating on her without making it a cliché, or sentimental, or sad, or tedious. Language does it here. For example, Mrs. Brown has six daughters, all born geometric in shape: cube, heptagon, rectangle and two triangles so prickly "that she locked up shop on Mr. Brown for nearly seven months. He was careful when he finally got back in that their last daughter was a perfectly satisfactory and smooth-sided sphere."
And if you want an example of how a story weakens when the writer feels the necessity of plot, notice how this story loses energy when the woman encounters a man who seems interested in what she has to say and she finds herself in the role of the kind of "excitement women" her husband chases. This reduction to plot does not wreck the story, but it does make it limp a bit at the end.
Then there is Hilary Mantel. I am not sure how revered Mantel is in England, although I suspect that a two-time winner of the Booker for well-researched historical novels would quite possibly be publicly adored. Good for her. But that doesn't mean she can write a decent short story. Although I guess it would be hard to resist including two stories by one of England's most respected novelists, I just cannot see that either of her two stories in the 2001 Best British Short Stories are anything but dashed-off, plot-based, pot-boilers.
The first thing that distracts me about the story "Winter Break" is the use of novelistic detail that has nothing to do with the significance of the story, just minor observations to make the reader nod knowingly that the writer is most perceptive. For example, when the couple arrive, the woman picks the cloth of her T-shirt away from her back, prompting Mantel to observe: "We dress for the weather we want, as if to bully it, even though we've seen the forecast." Mantel then wisely notes that there are two types of taxi men: the garrulous ones with a niece in Dagenham who want to talk and the ones who "needed every grunt racked out of them" and wouldn't tell you where their niece lived under torture. Again, the reader smiles wryly at such perceptive observation.
The fact that Mantel notes several times that the husband finds small children unbearable should alert us that this is what the story is going to be about in some way. So it is no surprise when the driver hits something, that the husband assumes, "kid." When the driver picks up a rock and pounds on what he hit, the wife assumes it is "Tomorrow's dinner". The story ends when the driver takes their luggage out of the boot and the wife sees not a cloven hoof of an animal, but the "grubby hand of a human child."
That, I suggest, makes for a grubby little horror story. Obviously, the dead child is a reminder to the woman of her husband's distaste for children. And the cloven hoof reference is a "devilish" allusion. But what is this story about? Nothing, just poor prose and a plot that shocks. Kureishi would probably like it.
Mantel's "Comma" is a predictable childhood buddies, good girl/bad girl, poor girl/middle-class girl story. In case we might miss that, Mantel announces it flatly in the second paragraph as the girls ask each other if they are rich.
The most common convention Mantel uses in the story is that of the fairy-tale, which she lays on so heavily that she perhaps thinks we have never read one. The first-person narrator announces that in a fairytale picture book you live in the forest under dripping cables with a thatch roof, and you have a basket with a patchwork cover with which you visit your grandma. When she says she is not supposed to mention her friend Mary Joplin's name, she images her as a two-dimensional character from a picture book, "beaten thin and flat"—such a shadow-like figure that the narrator is not sure if she even exists when she is not with her. These bookish references culminate in the central metaphor of the mysterious creature shaped like a comma. And then again, when the narrator relates the story of Mary's mother who spat in a stew a woman brought to her and says if it were not the persistence of the story, she might have thought she dreamed Mary and that time has sprinkled the story with mercies like fairy dust.
Claire Massey's "Feather Girls" is a better use of the fairy tale motif than "Comma" precisely because of the restraint and control of the language that makes it shimmer with significance rather than clamor with cliché. The story is about an old mythic notion that women are somehow magical, mysterious creatures that comes from a world of nature and myth and that somehow men—who are merely men--must capture the creature and make it human by stealing that aspect of it that binds it to the magical world. Mermaid stories are such myths. John Sayles' film The Secret of Roan Innish, based on the children's novel by Rosalie K. Fry, is about this legend. If it is not a selkie or seal whose skin is taken away, then it is the feathers of a swan, as in Claire Massey's story. The story works because of the universality of the myth and Massey's restraint in framing it in the simplest of situations of one man who always fails to be worthy of the feather girl he desires.
Michele Roberts' "Tristram and Isolde" raises another issue about the relationship of language to plot. I had to read the story several times because I was not really sure at first who the narrator is. The story sounds as if it is told by a young woman with her lover, as he sighs to her, Izzy, my darling" and she sleeps in his arms with her legs wrapped around him. He plunges his hands into her "mop" of curls, telling her she has pointed ears like an elf. When he eats meat, the smell from his body makes her feel a wolf is hugging her. This metaphor is followed up by her knotting a pieces of string around his wrist like a leash; he jumps up and down and growls, pawing her, pretending to lick her nose.
The language is insufferably adolescent: "Love, like sap, a green juice, coursed from his heart down his arm through our joined hand sup my arm into my heart." "This morning I felt I could eat the whole world, roll it on my tongue crisp as pastry, tart and sweet as oranges."
When they walk in the forest, branches are like the ears of deers pricking up and become transformed into a red stag, his antlers like a "tall crown, candelabra of bone." The stag is like a king of the woods, and she wants to fall down on the ground and salute him. They come to an oak tree that has a hollow trunk—"our secret room"—and she says it is like the chapter when Tristram and Isolde run away and live in the forest secretly. She says to her herself that they are married now. She says she is his real wife, the one he secretly loved best and his other wife is far away where she could not see them.
The language is so thickly adolescent that I find myself skimming, for it goes on and on repeating the same kind of romantic fantasy. "We'd hold our breath when the searchers cam past: they'd never guess what strange creatures nested" in the trees and they were one single "creature of shared love." "Time stopped. The world broke in two and the fragments flying apart hit me in the face, in the mouth, in the teeth."
Then abruptly the fantasy is broken when the man says "Look at the time" and she knows that lovers have to part, especially secret lovers outlaw lovers. Then we find out what has been going on, for on the bus she says he puts on a fake charming voice so all the old ladies would think what a good father he is. "You want to see Mummy, don't you, Izzy darling" And your new little brother."
Now we know it is a child and she is jealous of the new baby as she kicks its cot. The story ends with a final fantasy of escape as the child becomes invisible, leaps up to the windowsill and flies out back to the green park, merging with the undergrowth, dissolving to become her new true self, calling to her deer to surround her, then vanishing with them into the "heart of the forest."
The problem the story raises for me is that it deceives the reader into thinking one thing—that a young woman is with her lover—and then "surprises the reader by letting us know it is a female child fantasying about her father. If you had known it was a child from the beginning, how would you have reacted? If the only thing that makes the story a story is the plot trick, is that enough to justify wading through the childish romanticism of the rest of it, even if that romanticism is satire?
After all this talk about plot vs. prose, I wonder if it is possible to like a story with ordinary prose because of the compelling nature of the plot. On the other hand, is it possible to like a story with an inconsequential plot because it has very fine prose?
"Moving Day" by Robert Edric is, for me, a story that has little plot interest, but I like the sentences: "A fly flew across the small apartment and tapped against the glass as though testing it for a flaw, searching for an escape."
"It was another beginning—a time before the first ending, before the last decade—before the upper floors had finally been abandoned to the heat and the dust and when the inhabitants of the hightree apartments had congregated on the walled roof of the tower."
And the concluding paragraph:
"Proctor repeated the names, mesmerized by what he'd retrieved, and this time, Miller joined him, the two men word-and emphasis-perfect in their shared mantra, smiles on their faces, their eyes closed, boys together, conducing themselves with the vague and liquid movement of their fingers, and hearing somewhere in the room, somewhere across the forty years which at once divided and connected them, the muted time-keeping tapping of the solitary fly as it resumed its own unstoppable journey into the light that had for so long remained beyond its reach."
"Looted" by Dai Vaughan is a brief story about a soldier in World War II who takes a small landscape painting from a shelled apartment. Many years later he sees a photograph of the apartment with the painting visible. He surrenders the painting to the German authorities and then begins trying to copy the painting from memory. Then one day when his eldest son takes him and his wife for a drive in the British countryside; he sees a landscape that looks like the lost painting. The story ends with a moment when he feels he must decide whether to enter the landscape or not. The complexity of this moment is whether by entering the landscape he might delete the memory of the painting. He thinks that by turning away he can allow the remembered painting to remain as it was, but is not sure whether or not it is already too late. The last line is: "He hesitates. And then his family calls him to the car." Although the prose is fairly transparent, the concept is intriguing, for it explores the complex relationship between art and reality.
I will post one more brief essay on issues raised for me by the remaining stories in Best British Short Stories 2011.
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
I have been rereading the stories in the Best British Short Stories series, beginning with the first volume, 2011. In his Introduction, Nicholas Royle says that short stories often get "short shrift" from readers because many have little point to them. He says there has to be something: an "epiphany, or a change of heart, or pace or tone; a twist, perhaps, a revelation that calls into question everything that came before." I agree, for I have little patience with pieces that are merely parts of novels, slices of "life," or experimental finger exercises.
Royle says he would rather be left with questions than answers after reading a story, with a "vague feeling of uncertainty rather than one of satisfaction at how neatly everything has been tied up." He wants the story's questions and ambiguities to remain with him." Most writers I have read would agree with that, and so do I.
Thus, it seems appropriate that I begin with the first story, David Rose's "Flora," which indeed left me with a satisfying feeling of uncertainty. I have read the story several times now, and am still pleasantly puzzled by it. I was first attracted to the language of the first-person narrator, who uses such language, in nineteenth-century formality, such things as "remonstrated," "contrived," and "sustenance." When he comes across a young woman sketching in the Kew Gardens, he is curious about her. He runs into again enough times to use the word "fate," which he says he has never believed in.
I am always interested when "fate" is evoked in a story, for since a story is obviously a "made" narrative, everything that happens in it happens for a reason, at least a narrative reason.
I am also always interested when a character in a story makes a general statement about the nature of reality, for it usually suggests that the generalization has some thematic significance. The narrator tries to save a Japanese maple from a fungal growth, but becomes taken by the strange beauty of the fungus, "the subtlety of its opalescent colors, the intricacy of its structure." He wonders "Are we right…to divide Nature as we do?" There would be no reason for a character make such a statement in a short story unless it has thematic significance, for this is not a novel in which a narrator has lots of narrative time to ponder things in general just to show us he is a thoughtful and dependable storyteller.
Soon after this observation about the fungus, the narrator sees the girl again and notices how rough her elbow is, from "propping bars" he thinks then "mentally rapped his knuckles" for his prejudice, and further reflects that what he was feeling was closer to "tenderness, almost pity for that nonchalantly uncared-for patch of skin."
When he sees her again and finds out she is interested in studying botanical illustration, he thinks of the fungus and the little patch of dry skin as similar in their appeal and offers her the use of his library of botanical books, for he feels "absurdly happy" with his garden and feels obligated to share it with someone.
When the young woman comes to use his books, he first brings her coffee and chocolate cookies, as if she were a child, but later realizes that a martini, crackers, and a dish of olives would be more suitable. He also discovers that she has a male friend, although she tells him he is not her boyfriend. The man is older than the girl, but the narrator is glad that someone loves her. He watches them in the garden from his bedroom window, sometimes with binoculars.
Then an "incident" occurs; he hears a "little scream" or a "moderate cry" and sees the man stamping "almost viciously" on something on the grass." Later that evening he looks and only finds the outline of something "lozenge-shaped and sharp stamped into the lawn."
He never sees the man again and soon the girl stops coming also; he is hurt that she did not say goodbye. When he goes into his library, he notices a book out of alphabetical sequence. When he takes it out he finds a hair, like a minuscule bookmark. When he lays the book down, it opens to the middle with the illustrations flapping like a "lantern slide show," (which finally locates the story in the nineteen century). He notices that tendrils have been added to one of the engraved plates in pencil. "They were almost obscene in the outline they limned." He takes down other books and finds they too have been altered. He also notes that the books have letters inscribed in red on the bottom edges. When he rearranges the books in correct order with the bottom edges facing him, they spell—with gaps where they had been replaced out of sequence—"on ly win ter is tru ."
At first he felt a "shock of desecration." Now he feels a "wearying sadness." He puts the books back in the bookcase, locks the glass door, and throws the key away. It lands under the desk. "After some thought, I retrieved it, and hung it, with the spare, by the clock, in the hall."
And that's the last sentence in the story.
There are at least two kinds of mysteries in stories. First, there is the mystery of fact or detail, something left out or not explained. In this story, the two mysteries are the lozenge-shaped outline of what has been stamped in the lawn and the meaning of what is spelled out by the letters on the books: "on ly win ter is tru ."
The second kind of mystery is the mystery of motivation: why a character does something that seems strange or perverse or simply unmotivated or unexplained. In this story, the most obvious mystery is why the girl alters the botanical illustrations. The other mysteries are why the man angrily stamps something in the lawn and the mystery that makes this a story--why the narrator is interested in the young woman and feels fated to have met her.
The only clue we have to the mystery of the imprint in the lawn is that it is lozenge-shaped, which suggests a diamond, and since the narrator refers to it as a "sharp" outline, we might guess that the object the man has stamped into the lawn is a diamond ring, presumably one he has offered to the girl as a proposal of marriage, which she has turned down, perhaps because he is too old for her. We can make these presumptions based on details in the story, but cannot know for sure if we are correct. I am hesitant to make such a presumption because I don't see how a diamond could make an indentation in a lawn; it would have to be quite large, would it not?
Why the woman alters the illustrations and what this means to the narrator are, of course, the most puzzling mysteries of motivation in the story.
The mystery of motivation is one of the most common challenges to understanding a short story, for the drive toward significance in a short story is often more pressing than the drive toward verisimilitude. Consequently, ordinary human motivation is sometimes overridden by aesthetic motivation. The story's insistence on significance is more pressing than its insistence on realism or ordinary human understanding.
That goes against the grain of many readers, for they are more likely to think of the behavior of characters in a story as being like the behavior of real people in the real world rather than "characters" in a fiction there to serve a certain "function" rather than to be "real-like." One of the problems many folks have reading short stories is that they have a limited notion of what "reality" means, usually thinking it simply means the ordinary stuff that happens to ordinary people in an ordinary world. But this is just not the case in short stories, for we are actually reading about invented characters in an invented narrative who, even as they seem somehow real and driven by everyday human motivation, are at the same time functions of a story that "means" something.
In "Flora," we have a botanist whose life is governed by careful observation and preservation of the natural world. However, as he observes, sometimes he is drawn to, or interested in, or curious about, deviations from that natural world—like the fungus that threatens the tree in his garden or the roughness on the young woman's arm.
A thematic convention that often occurs in the short story is that of a man who lives a formally precise life, a life of science, a life of exactness, who deserves to experience a disruption of that precision. "Flora" may be that kind of story. The central character has no life of his own except the life of his observation of the natural world, which he finds predictable and precise, even though he suspects there is something that always threatens that precision, like the fungus, which has a kind of beauty, albeit destructive.
He is drawn to the young woman and watches her relationship with an older man, perhaps seeing acted out some desire which she cannot fulfill. Without admitting his own needs, he watches his desires played out in the actions of the man stamping the ring into the ground. The theme of the story demands that the girl make clear to him that his notions of what is natural and precise and predictable are susceptible to being undermined, even, as he says, "desecrated." Consequently, the theme of the story mandates that she make human changes in the precision of the natural images that make up his life.
Even as the narrator believes that the life of his garden, the life of the natural world is real and true, she reminds him that only winter, only the frozen image is true, only Keats' "cold pastoral" is true, for only beauty is truth and only truth is beauty, and that is all you can ever know or ever even need to know. Artifice, as Oscar Wilde loved to remind us, always triumphs over nature. Thus, "on ly win ter is tru ."
I apologize for going on so long about this story. I obviously cannot do this for every story in the five volumes of Best British Short Stories, for it would take months that I do not have. However, this story provided an irresistible introit to whatever discussions follow, for it seems such an epitome of what makes the short story form so fascinating to me.
I always told my students that if they read a story that did not seem to make sense to them, the fault would more likely to be theirs that that of the author. I am still puzzled by David Rose's story, but that is my fault, not his. I would appreciate hearing from any of my readers who has a more satisfying explanation of its mystery.
David Rose has a new collection just out entitled Posthumous Stories, which includes "Flora." I have just ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. I thank Nicholas Royle for introducing him to me.
Saturday, August 22, 2015
One of the most interesting, and promising, trends in the short story in the past few years is the blossoming of interest in the form in England.
It has long been an unchallenged assumption in short story criticism (what little there is) that English readers, critics, academics, and therefore publishers, have seldom, if ever, been interested in the short story—always preferring the bigger, more socially important, more encompassing, and more profitable, novel.
Because the short story does not deal with unified social values, the form seems to thrive best in societies where there is fragmentation of values and people. This fragmentation has often been cited as one reason why the short story became quickly popular in early nineteenth century America. In 1924, Katherine Fullerton Gerould said that American short story writers dealt with peculiar atmospheres and special moods, for America has no centralized civilization. "The short story does not need a complex and traditional background so badly as the novel does," argued Gerould.
Wendell Harris and Lionel Stevenson have suggested somewhat the same reason for the predominance of the novel in English literature. Stevenson points out that as soon as a culture becomes more complex, brief narratives expand or "agglomerate" and thus cause the short story to lose its identity. The fragmentation of sensibility did not set in in England until about 1880 at which time the short story came to the fore as the best medium for presenting this fragmentation. Wendell Harris also reminds us that the nineties in England were known as the golden age of the short story and notes how with the fragmentation of sensibility, perspective or "angle of vision "becomes most important in fiction, especially in the short story in which, instead of a world to enter as in the novel, the form presents a vignette to contemplate.
Harris has also noted that from Fielding to Hardy, fiction was defined in England as "a presentation of life in latitudinal or longitudinal completeness." This concept of narrative paralleled man's intellectual concern with society; thus the short story was thought to be insignificant in England until late in the nineteenth century when the appropriate vision for it arrived. The "essence of the short story" says Harris, "is to isolate, to portray the individual person, or moment, or scene in isolation detached from the great continuum at once social and historical, on which it had been the business of the English novel, and the great concern of nineteenth century essayists, to insist." As Frank O'Connor has noted, whereas the novel can adhere to the classical concept of a civilized society, "the short story, remains, by its very nature remote from the community romantic, individualistic, and intransigent."
However, thanks to the energy of such writer/editors as Nicholas Royle, writer/teachers as Ailsa Cox, and critic/reviewers as Chris Power—to mention only three that come to mind right away—the short story has begun to generate more interest in England. Short story prizes such as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Prize, the BBC National Short Story Award, and the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize give short-story writers something to aim for, while such web/blog sites as the Short Review, The Short Story, Thresholds, and Short Stops keep short stories in the eye of the public. Under the masterful editorship of Ailsa Cox, Edge Hill University publishes a very fine academic journal Short Fiction in Theory and Practice. There is even a National Short Story Day (Dec. 21), and an annual Small Wonder Short Story Festival. With the exception of the U.S.-based International Short Story Conference which occurs once every two years, and the journal Short Story, there is nothing in America to compare with these efforts.
During the summer I have been reading the first five volumes of Best British Short Stories, ably edited by Nicholas Royle, and bravely published by Salt Press. I don't know how well the volumes for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 have been selling, but obviously well enough to carry on for five years so far. Royle has talked about how he started the series in a 2011 post on the website Thresholds. I thank him for providing me with several weeks to good reading this summer.
Now that I have read all the stories in the first five volumes (over 100 altogether), I plan to read them all again in the next couple of months and write blog posts on as many of them as I can, focusing on what makes them such fine examples of the short story form.
I have been commenting on Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories for several years on this blog. The O. Henry 2015 volume will be out in early September, and the 2015 volume of Best American Short Stories comes out in October. I will, of course be reading and commenting on those stories during the Fall.
And just to keep myself happily busy, I have started reading the six volumes of Best European Fiction (2010—2015). The 2016 volume is due out in early October. I will be posting blog essays on many of those stories before the end of the year also.
I know there is no guarantee that the stories in these "Best" volumes from American, England, and Europe really represent the "best" stories published in a given year. There are always human variables when something is labelled the "best," not the least of which who is doing the labelling, and who is doing the publishing. However, when a knowledgeable editor has the stamina to read hundreds of stories and make decisions about them, and when a brave publisher has the vision to publish a volume that he or she knows is not going to sell that well—then it is not a bad place to start reading the short story.
I hope you will read with me in the next few months as I try to be the best reader that these best stories deserve.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Charles Baxter's collection of critical essays, Burning Down the House, is, like other good books about writing, very much about reading. He also has a small book in the Graywolf "Art of" Series, (which he edits) entitled The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, which he says is largely based on a number of "close readings," mainly of short stories, in which he acts as a "critic-sleuth," trying to reveal how writers get at the "half-visible and the unspoken," which constitute what some critics like to call "subtext."
I said in an earlier blog that I was suspicious of the word "subtext," for it seems to me to be merely a new term for an old concept. And Baxter admits that he is certainly not the first to argue that a good story is energized more by what it implies than what it states—"the half visible and the unspoken." Chekhov once said that it is always better to say too little than too much, although he coyly said he was not sure why. And of course, there's Hemingway's famous claim that if a writer of prose "knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."
Subtext, as used by recent critics and writing teachers, refers to the complex significance that underlies or inheres within a story—some sense of human mystery that transcends mere plot and character configuration. Many other writers have talked about it. A story, Flannery O'Connor says, "is a way to say something that can't be said in any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."
And Eudora Welty once said: "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful."
More recently, Robert Boswell, talks to aspiring writers about subtextual implication in his book The Half-known World: “If the writer’s goal is ‘literary fiction’ [one of his or her responsibilities] is the creation of a half-known world. To accomplish this, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.”
Subtext, the way Baxter uses the term, means the story as significance rather than the story as event. For example, in John Cheever's story "The Swimmer," while the surface text is about a man swimming home through backyard pools, the subject of the subtext, according to Baxter, is about impulses that become repetitive addictions leading to the derailment of ordinary life.
Chekhov's "Lady with the Dog," says Baxter, is on the surface, about a man who has an affair, whereas its subtext is about a man who discovers that what he thought he wanted is not what he truly wants at all, but rather something he had not asked for or even known about. J. F. Powers' story "The Valiant Woman" is, on the surface about a priest and his housekeeper, whereas its subtext is about what Baxter calls the "grievous injustices" of marriage.
Many writers who are also in business of teaching others how to write use the concept of subtext. David Baboulene, who says he is working on a full-length book on subtext, has published two books on the nature of story in which he introduces the importance of the concept. In Story Theory, 2014, Baboulene says his great discovery about subtext is that a writer does not work with subtext, that "it's entirely wrong-headed, as a writer, to even think about subtext." What a writer does is create "knowledge gaps" in the story so the reader can create the subtext. Baboulene's basic definition of story is "any form of communication that includes knowledge gaps in the telling."
The idea of an underlying meaning in a story has been around at least since Edgar Allan Poe's discussions of the short story. Poe was the first to make a distinction between plot, or "what happens next" and pattern, or "what the story means. He distinguishes between the usual notion of plot as merely those events which occur one after another and arouse suspense and his own definition of plot as an overall pattern, design, or unity. Poe emphasizes that by "plot" he means pattern and design, not simply the temporal progression of events. Only pattern can make the separate elements of the work meaningful, not mere realistic cause-and-effect.
There is little doubt that Poe was, if nothing else, a thoroughgoing formalist, always more interested in the work's pattern, structure, conventions, and techniques than its reference to the external world. For Poe the overall design was not a pre-established intention, totally in the mind of the writer before the work's composition, but rather that the pattern of the work was achieved in the actual working out of the work.
The 1842 Hawthorne review is of course the central document for understanding Poe's contribution to the theory of the short story. What is most important in the literary work is unity; however, unity can only be achieved in a work which the reader can hold in the mind all at once. After the poem, traditionally the highest of high literary art, Poe says that the short tale has the most potential for being unified in the way the poem is. The effect of the tale is synonymous with its overall pattern or design, which is also synonymous with its theme or idea. Form and meaning emerge from the unity of the motifs of the story.
According to the Russian formalists, we can think of details in a story that are there merely to give us a sense of actuality as being relatively "loose" and even dispensable, or at least changeable. Details that are in the story because they are relevant to its meaning or overall rhetorical effect we can think of as being relatively "bound" to the story, that is, intrinsic and not easily detachable or changeable. Trying to determine which details in a story are "loose" and which are "bound" is one of the most important skills for reading stories effectively. One of the most important ways we can determine which details are bound and which are loose is by applying the principle of redundancy or repetition: if a certain detail or kind of detail is mentioned more than once or twice in a story, we might suspect that it is relevant in some way.
The circulation in American universities of the central ideas of the New Criticism, also called "formalist," "contextual," or "objective" criticism, was mainly due to the publication of two highly influential literature textbooks in the 1930s by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren: Understanding Fiction and Understanding Poetry. The most basic and pervasive premise of the New Criticism was that the meaning of a work is not equivalent to what the artist "intended" when he wrote it, for poetic language is so highly connotative that the ultimate meaning of a work of art exceeds any original intention. To get at a work's meaning the reader had to engage in a close analytical reading. The assumption was that the work was a highly unified object that communicated something significant about human experience by the choice and arrangement of its individual parts.
New Critics felt that the work's theme was too complex to be reduced to some discursive idea purposely placed within the poem by the author, which could be plucked out by the reader like a raisin from a cake. In a central essay on the subject entitled "The Language of Paradox," Cleanth Brooks argued that whereas the scientist wants to freeze language into widely-agreed upon denotations, literature is always breaking up these agreements in perpetually new ways. The primary device for achieving this constant break-up is metaphor, and metaphor, argued the New Critics, is by its very nature always ironic and paradoxical. Thus the values sought after in poetry by the New Critics were those of complexity, irony, tension, and paradox.
According to Russian Formalists Boris Eichenbaum and Boris Tomashevsky, when approaching fiction one must make an initial distinction between the series of events which a writer takes as his subject matter and the specific structure that results when the writer presents the completed piece of fiction to the reader. Although one may be tempted to think of both these series of events as the same, formalists saw the former as merely the raw material, whereas the latter is the transformation of the raw material by means of purely literary conventions or devices. The Russian Formalist notion of narrative structure that later proved highly influential is the concept of a "motif" as being the smallest particle of thematic material in a story, organized in strategically justifiable ways which the Russian Formalists call "motivation."
As I say, this is all old stuff, but every once in a while, a critic seems to discover the concept as if it were brand new. One example I ran across in doing the research for this blog was an article by Dan Shen entitled" 'Overall-Extended Close Reading' and Subtexts of Short Stories," English Studies 91 (April 2010). Shen, Changiang Professor of English at Peking University, notes that close reading, after being discredited for a time as conservative and limited, is showing signs of return. This should not be surprising, given the fact that regardless of what critical trend sweeps through graduate programs—theoretical, social, political, biographical, etc.—it is inevitable that there will always be a return to a close reading of the literary work.
Shen proposes what she calls "overall-extended close reading, "which she says is particularly useful in investigating "subtexts of short stories." She suggests the following three parts of her so-called "new" methodology: (1) examining "local elements in relation to their global function, taking into account the interaction among textual details in different parts of the narrative; (2) taking into account the socio-historical contexts of the work; (3) paying attention to intertextual relations by comparing the text to related texts.
Anyone familiar with modern literary criticism since the New Criticism will see that this proposal is hardly original, for it simply suggests that close reading should not ignore a social and an intertextual context.
Shen chooses Stephen Crane's story "An Episode of War" to illustrate her "new" strategy, arguing that previous critics' failure to consider the interaction among "local elements" in the story and insufficient attention to intertextual and extra textual relations have resulted in a failure to perceive a "most essential subtext" in the story, whereas her "overall extended close reading" has enabled her to see a "macrostructural satirical strategy—"feminization" which consistently deprives the protagonist and his comrades of masculinity as a most important cornerstone of traditional heroism."
The "local elements" Shen picks out in the story—the lieutenant dividing coffee, a simile of a girls boarding school, his crying out when shot — what she calls all typical feminine behaviors dramatize the soldier in the story as being like a "weak and vulnerable female." She also notes several similes of child-like behavior, e.g. "Don't be a baby," which she calls "childization," which reinforces the "macrostructure" of feminization. She concludes that this feminization strategy has eluded generations of critics because of the "bondage of conventional interpretative frames," (whatever that means). She cites a Crane poem and his story "Mystery of Heroism" to provide a social and intertextual context for his attitude to war.
I mention Professor Shen's discussion of subtext in Crane's "Episode of War" to illustrate that simply because a critic adopts a new term does not mean that said critic has access to the underlying significance of a story. I suggest that Professor Shen's picking out references to traditional "feminine" behavior simply refers to a common cultural cliché that if a man does not face an injury with a stiff upper lip and a straight face, he risks being called a "sissy," or in some circles he is referred to by the vulgar metonymy whereby men reduce women to their genitals.
In a piece I published a piece on Crane's story "An Episode of War" some forty years ago, I suggested a "reading" of the "subtext," (without using that term) that integrated many more of what Shen calls "local elements" in the story than the simple cultural cliché of being a "sissy" and thus justified the story as embodying a much more universal theme typical of Crane's philosophic point of view in such stories as "The Open Boat," "The Blue Hotel," and others.
Although the title of Stephen Crane's short story "An Episode of War" obviously points to an event somehow related to a national conflict, the central character, a lieutenant, is not engaged in a war activity when the story opens. He is simply dividing coffee for his men. Instead of using his sword as an instrument of war, he is using it as a tool to perform an everyday household chore. While engaged in an activity of ordered, "mathematical," normality the lieutenant suddenly cries out, and the situation is ordered and normal no longer.
At this crucial point the story presents a frozen scene in which the lieutenant can only gaze "sadly, mystically" at the "green face of a wood," while the men stand "statue like and silent, astonished and awed by this catastrophe which happened when catastrophes were not expected." As is usual when one is struck unexpectedly, the lieutenant looks quickly at the man near him "as if he suspected it were a case of personal assault." When he realizes that the man next to him is not the guilty party, he looks further for a cause. But all he sees is "the green face of a wood." And indeed the answer to the question: "What struck the lieutenant"--the question that the lieutenant, the men and the reader ask at this point--can only be: "the green face of a wood."
Crane's control of the details of this situation further suggests that the wood is the enemy. He not only refuses to show us the person who fired the shot; he does not even say that the lieutenant was shot at all. All we see is the blood that mysteriously appears on his sleeve. Furthermore, it is the wood, not the supposed enemy behind it, that is called "hostile." In fact, the wood dominates this first section of the story. As the lieutenant begins his trip back through the lines for medical aid he stares at it once more; and the reader is forced to focus on it also as the men in silence "stared at the wood, then at the departing lieutenant; then at the wood, then at the lieutenant."
The wood as enemy is suggested by two more indirect references in the second section of the story. When the lieutenant goes back through the lines, he sees a general on a black horse gazing over the lines of the blue infantry “at the green woods which veiled his problems.” And at the end of this section, as the lieutenant turns his eyes toward the battle itself, he sees crowds of men standing and firing away, not at a concrete, observable enemy, but at the “inscrutable distance.” With the piling up of such images of the wood as a "mystery," as "hostile," as something which "veils" one's problems, as "inscrutable," as something one can only gaze at "sadly, mystically"; we begin to realize that the lieutenant's enemy is the most general human enemy, that the "war" in which he is engaged in is the "war" in which human beings are always engaged--a war that, in our everyday ordered activities, we often forget. The green face of the wood that strikes the lieutenant and gives no answer is the blankness we all face when something unexpected and mysterious confronts us..
Moreover, the lieutenant's confrontation in section one of the story is not only with the blank mystery of meaningless attack, but also with the ultimate extension of that mystery--the absolute mystery of death. The men shy away from him as if his "hand is upon the curtain which hangs before the revelations of all existence." They "fear vaguely that the weight of a finger upon him might send him headlong, precipitate the tragedy, hurl him at once into the dim, gray unknown." The results of such a confrontation are that the lieutenant becomes, at the same time, both lowly and dignified. The familiar sword he was using to divide the coffee becomes a strange thing to him. Puzzled with what to do with it, he looks at in a " kind of stupefaction, as if he had been endowed with a trident, a scepter, or a spade." The very metaphoric transformation of the sword suggests both implications--the royal dignity and authority of the scepter and trident, as well as the lowly earth-bound subservience of the spade.
Although "a wound gives strange dignity to him who wears it," and "men shy away from this new and terrible majesty," the lieutenant "wears the look of one who know he is the victim of a terrible disease and understands his helplessness." Now we realize that the terrible disease of which the lieutenant is a victim is the same disease of which all human beings are victims --the disease of simply being human and therefore susceptible to the mystery of the uncontrollable world outside and the ultimate mystery of death.
In the third section of the story, the lieutenant, having reached help behind his lines, faces a different response to his wound. Instead of being treated with the awe due royalty, as he was earlier, he is now treated with the scorn due a child who has been careless enough to get himself into trouble. The doctor's response to the lieutenant is the final manifestation of his isolation. Because he sees wounded men every day, the lieutenant is not special or royal as he was before. Just the opposite, he is beneath the doctor, "on a very low social plain." The lieutenant becomes merely an object that must be tended to precisely because he is a frail and "brittle" human object susceptible to the "hostile" world outside. In this story, the lieutenant is the only one who has faced the significance of the “green face of the wood,” and it is this that isolates him from all the others.
The lieutenant finally rebels. He fears the loss of the arm will make concrete a much greater loss he has been moving toward throughout the story--the loss of his familiar and ordered place in the world. But his rebellion makes no difference; and as he gazes at the schoolhouse door, "as sinister to him as the portals of death," we confront again the "veil" or "curtain" referred to earlier in the story that hangs before the revelations of all existence. We do not enter these "portals" with the lieutenant and thus do not know what "revelations" are made to him. The loss of the arm is as mysterious as the wound itself. Instead, the story jumps ahead to a scene perhaps several months later. As his sisters, mother, and wife sob for a long time at the sight of the flat sleeve, he stands shamefaced and says, "Oh, well. . . I don't suppose it matters so much as all that." And Crane sums up the story by saying, "And this is the story of how the lieutenant lost his arm." Both statements are obviously ironic, Crane's understatement giving us the clue to the irony of the lieutenant's disclaimer.
We realize that this has not been a story of how the lieutenant lost his arm. That event occurred outside the given details of the story. The story itself presents the experience that led up to the amputation. The lieutenant realizes, just as we do now, that the women are only crying over the physical loss of the arm. To them this is what the story is about. But the lieutenant now realizes that the physical loss is not so important. What is really important is the experience the lieutenant has gone through--an experience structured as a short story called "An Episode of War." And this story is about the lieutenant's confrontation with the mystery of the world and mankind's precarious situation in it.
I suggest that Professor Shen's singling out references to so-called "feminization" is a reduction of the mysterious significance of Crane's story. According to the New Critics of long ago, one of the principle criteria of determining what Shen likes to call "subtext" is to do a "close reading" of the entire story, not merely trace a single cultural metaphor.
The concept of subtext is indeed an important aspect of what distinguishes a great short story from a simple narrative, but it certainly is not a new notion just because it has a new name.